KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The nation's top agriculture official on Wednesday announced more than $300 million in emergency assistance to 33 states and Puerto Rico to help them recover from an unusually intense year for natural disasters across the U.S.
Utah and Missouri will receive the most disaster aid, together taking in $109 million, or more than one-third of the $308 million in aid from Department of Agriculture watershed and conservation emergency funds, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Associated Press ahead of Wednesday's formal announcement.
The emergency funds are part of USDA's annual budget and money allocated from them will be used to repair and stabilize agriculture and public safety infrastructure. The federal money covers 75 percent of the cost of such repairs, and is distributed based on local agencies' applications and ability to pay the balance, according to the USDA.
Vilsack spokesman Matt Herrick said states were largely approved for the amount of money requested. Applications are most often handled by local Natural Resource Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency offices.
"We rely on the county offices because they are right there," said Gerald Hrdina, head of the Farm Service Agency's conservation section in Missouri. "The requests are funneled through here, and we decide whether to forward them to the national office. We very seldom deny an application."
Flooding last spring inundated thousands of acres of farmland in Utah, costing farmers tens of millions of dollars lost to damaged and destroyed crops or delayed planting. Utah will receive $60 million in watershed money for repair work and preventative measures in 13 cities and counties hit by floods within the last 13 months, said Bronson Smart, state conservation engineer for the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service.
He said his agency requested that amount to deal with two rounds of flooding, including flash flooding in southern Utah in December 2010 and flooding last spring in northern and central parts of the state caused by a record snowpack.
Missouri suffered months of flooding along the Missouri River after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorized unprecedented releases from reservoirs in the northern river basin all summer to deal with unexpectedly heavy rain in May and above-average mountain snowpack. Farmers in the Missouri Bootheel, meanwhile, saw their crops swamped when the Army Corps of Engineers exploded a levee to relieve water pressure on an upriver town in Illinois. The intentional breach sent water cascading over thousands of acres of prime farmland.
Missouri will receive around $49 million, of which $35 million will come from the watershed program and the rest from the Farm Service Agency's Emergency Conservation Program.
Harold Decker, assistant state conservationist for water resources in Missouri, said most of the watershed money will go toward clearing and redeveloping drainage ditches filled with silt and debris by flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
"Without that work, those systems aren't going to function," Decker said. "If ditches aren't draining properly, it retards plant growth and the drainage of the plants and lowers production."
Vilsack noted that natural disasters wreaked widespread, but varying, havoc in 2011.
"There have been years that have had more intensive damage in a particular geographic area, but what's unique about last year is that virtually every part of the country was affected," Vilsack told the AP. "It was different in every part of the country. We've not seen tornadoes as devastating as last spring. Flooding on the Missouri River, because of the longstanding nature of the flooding — not a two- or three-week situation — was unique. Fires in the southwest part of the country were historic in magnitude. It's been a tough year."
Slightly more than $215 million of the aid comes from the Emergency Watershed Program, about $80 million will come from the Emergency Conservation Program and nearly $12 million is from the FSA's Emergency Forest Restoration Program. Texas, for instance, will receive nearly $6 million after wildfires charred the southern part of the state.
The watershed funds will go toward public safety and restoration efforts on private, public and tribal land, Vilsack said. Projects funded by that money will include removing debris from waterways, protecting eroded stream banks, reseeding damaged areas and, in some cases, purchasing floodplain easements on eligible land.
New York trails only Utah in the amount of watershed protection money received, at $37.8 million.
New York's money is earmarked for repairing erosion and other damage left behind by back-to-back late summer tropical storms Irene and Lee.
Dennis DeWeese, acting state conservationist with the conservation service in New York, said 51 communities have asked for assistance and damage assessments have been completed for 15. The agency's staff of 25, mostly engineers, had visited 160 sites by the end of last week and is continuing work that may extend into the Adirondacks.
One challenge, he said, will be asking already cash-strapped towns and villages to pay their shares to qualify for the federal money and begin design and construction.
"A lot of these municipalities are overwhelmed," DeWeese said.
In addition to flooding, 2011 was a big year for tornadoes, including record outbreaks in the South and a monster storm that leveled a large portion of Joplin, Mo.
Alabama is scheduled to get nearly $7 million in assistance for tornado recovery, followed by nearly $4 million in Georgia. Missouri, at the other end of the spectrum, is to receive only $130,000 to fix tornado damage to agricultural land.
Vilsack said the emergency money is being used to help agricultural interests beyond what is covered by crop insurance. He said the USDA paid out $8.6 billion in crop insurance payments last year, and $17.2 billion over the past three years.
Associated Press writer Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City and George M. Walsh in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.